Biden on the HHS Mandate: A Lie or a Terminological Inexactitude?

Winston Churchill deserves the credit for replacing the word “lies” with the “fabrication of terminological inexactitudes.” No one wants to be accused of telling a lie. Churchill’s ingenious phrase may mean the same thing as a lie, but it has considerably less sting. By the time the accused figures out what these words mean, the sharp pain of insult has been greatly softened.

Concerning Vice President Joe Biden’s flat denial, during the Biden/Ryan debate, that the HHS mandate obliges Catholics to pay for contraception and abortifacients, Archbishop Charles Joseph Chaput, stated, without employing personal invective, that “Biden was wrong” in what he said about the mandate during the debate, and “he should not get away with saying that in the public square.”

The venue was St. Elizabeth’s Church in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. An audience of 500 or so packed the church’s gymnasium that late Saturday afternoon of October 13, 2012. Archbishop Chaput, Philadelphia’s ninth Archbishop spoke for approximately 45 minutes. He was addressing the issue of Catholics in politics.

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“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie,” Mark Twain once said, “is that a cat has only nine lives.” A person can get away with telling lies on a continual basis, especially if he has status and delivers his untruths with conviction. Yet, we may well ask, what does status or conviction have to do with truth? Biden, in a deathless interview with Katie Couric, made the following memorable and astonishingly unhistorical claim: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.’” Roosevelt, of course, was not president when the market crashed in 1929. Furthermore, the only television sets in use at the time were experimental. Nor did Roosevelt say what Biden claimed he said.

According to the Biden calculus of truth-telling, however, it should not be surprising when he enunciates something that is wrong. In speaking to members of the House Democratic caucus who were gathered in Williamsburg, Virginia for their annual retreat (February, 5, 2009), Biden told them: “If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there’s still a 30% chance we’re going to get it wrong.” Yogi Berra, move over!

We live in a strange culture where people demand truth in advertizing, but not from their elected political leaders. During Archbishop Chaput’s presentation at St. Elizabeth’s Church, a woman in the audience asked why so many Catholics supported the “liberal” agenda. The Cardinal Archbishop responded by saying: “I call you as a Catholic, to forget about the labels, be a liberal sometimes, a conservative sometimes, but a Catholic first.” In so stating, he was distinguishing between “label” and “reality,” a most important philosophical distinction.

A person can label himself in whatever way he chooses. He is not necessarily restricted by truth. The label need not conform to reality.  So, too, placing a $100.00 label on an inexpensive item in a grocery store does not increase the value of that item. Hugh Hefner has declared that he is the most moral person he has ever met. Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted that he was the humblest person in the world and that he would commit suicide if he ever met a humbler person than himself.

Then, the good archbishop asked for a show of hands of those who were “more serious about being a Democrat than being a Catholic.” No hands were raised. He then asked for the hands of those who were “more serious about being a Republican than a Catholic.”  Once again, no hands were raised. Putting the finishing touch on what he had just witnessed, Archbishop Chaput said, “All of us should be more serious about being Catholic than a Democrat or a Republican.”

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus thinks about the conspiracy to kill Caesar and how to disguise the plot, or “To mask thy monstrous visage?” Then it occurs to him, “Seek none, conspiracy; Hide it in smiles and affability” (Act II, Sc. 1). The conspirators did not need to “find a cavern dark enough,” but could conceal their evil plan behind a cloak of feigned civility.

How many lies does it take before a person is finally exposed? One of the dangers of lying is that the lie takes on, in the mind of the liar, the semblance of truth. As, Blessed John Henry Newman has stated, “It is not in human nature to deceive others, for any long time, without in a measure, deceiving ourselves.”

Politicians, like all other human beings, are fallible. One can own up to a mistake and then get on the right track.  But chronic, persistent lying is inexcusable and intolerable. It represents a series of fabrications that short circuits the truth with the crude interposition of the self, or, as G. K. Chesterton put it, “The falsification of fact by the introduction of self.”

We should want our politicians to reflect reality, not their insatiable egos.


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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